Each year, the majority of the federal government’s discretionary budget goes to paying for the same single thing. It isn’t health care or housing. It isn’t education or transportation. No, each year hundreds of billions of dollars go to the US military (National Priorities Project).
The US is the top military spender on the planet. What’s more, it spends more on its military than the next ten countries–China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the UK, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil–combined. The gargantuan military budget sponsors 800 American overseas military bases spread across more than 70 countries (Politico). In 2016, U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed to an astounding 138 countries. Given that there are only 195 countries on Earth, this means more than 70% were visited by American commandos (Forbes).
In my lifetime alone, this sprawling, expensive military apparatus invaded Haiti, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq (twice). It intervened in Kosovo, Somalia, Bosnia, and Syria (Infoplease). There’s no reason to think this will change anytime soon. President Biden is already signalling a “tougher” foreign policy, calling Chinese president Xi Jinping a “thug” and refusing to lift sanctions on Iran (MarketWatch). Half of Americans expect to go to war with Iran in coming years (Reuters) though less than one in four can point to it on a map (Newsweek).
We should oppose US military interventions on anti-racist grounds because they lead to the mass death and deprivation of people of color abroad. The War on Terror has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians directly (Watson Institute), to say nothing of those who died from environmental degradation and starvation in the wake of American attacks. The aftermath of the US invasion of Libya has seen the introduction of literal slave markets in the country (Time). No consistent anti-racist can endorse outcomes like these.
There’s an additional reason why opposing racism means opposing militarism. When America’s leaders beat the war drum, they put people of color in the United States at risk as well.
The day after September 11th, 2001, President Bush announced that the attacks were “more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.” The United States, he said, was engaged in a “monumental struggle of good versus evil” against an “enemy [who] hides in the shadows and has no regard for human life” (BBC). Three days later, a man with stated intentions to “go out and shoot some towel heads” murdered a Sikh gas station owner, erroneously believed him to be Muslim (PRI). The murderer told police he did it out of patriotic duty. That year, 2001, anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped by 1718% (PRI).
In the early 1980s, Vietnamese refugees along the Gulf Coast came under attack by the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Burning crosses appeared in the front yards of Vietnamese families as their homes and shrimping boats went up in flames (NPR). Some of the Klan’s members were veterans who saw their campaign of racial terrorism as a continuation of the Vietnam War in which they had fought. “I promise them a lot better fight here than they got from the Viet Cong,” said the Klan’s leader (Timeline). For these white paramilitaries, their enemy hadn’t just been the North Vietnamese army but rather Vietnamese people in general.
And the current wave of anti-Asian attacks follows years of escalating rhetoric against China. According to one Forbes article, China is poised to “take over the world” (Forbes). China “ripped off the United States like no one has ever done before,” according to President Trump, and pushed the World Health Organization to “mislead the world” over the “Wuhan virus” (CNN). One 2020 Trump campaign email read, “America is under attack -– not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese” (NY Times).
To justify, fund, and conscript soldiers for war requires framing an entire people as the enemy. Politicians sometimes clarify that it is only the political leadership or a certain group within a nation that’s worthy of elimination. But this is fine print in the campaign of racially-tinted dehumanization necessary to convince a nation to endorse mass slaughter. As Dale Minami puts it, “Those images remain. The antipathy remains and survives. And to dehumanize these people of color and bring that back to your own country, the United States, leads to a justification for just terrible treatment of Asian people” (NPR).
President Biden called for increasing the defense budget from $740 to $753 billion this year (The Hill), with the $13 billion addition supposedly only a “modest” increase. Biden’s first military act as president was sanctioning an airstrike in Syria that the administration described as a “deliberate” move designed to “de-escalate the overall situation.” A Notre Dame Law School professor, in contrast, called the attack a clear violation of international law (The Guardian).
“Deliberate” executions from the sky and Special Forces roaming across a majority of countries in the world aren’t anything unusual. Biden’s airstrike barely made the nightly news in the United States. But if US foreign policy should take an even more contentious turn in the near future, we would do well to remember the catastrophic effects of American war for people around the world and in our very own communities, too. Dehumanization, othering, and racial violence–at home as well as abroad–all go hand in hand.